18 March 2021

Western Australian farmers are rapidly increasing their awareness of the importance of improved animal welfare practices. Many farmers are either changing their management systems to avoid painful practices like mulesing and dehorning, or they’re using products which provide much needed pain relief to their stock during certain procedures.

WA farmers had the largest increase in declarations of wool welfare traits of any state between 2019 and 2020 however, there is room for improvement with only about half of Western Australian clips being sold with the important mulesing status and pain relief declaration.

Similarly, the use of decision tools to weigh up the costs and benefits of welfare improvements are now becoming ‘main stream’ among producers who both care about their animals as well as the preferences of their customers.

There are key times in a livestock animal’s life where they can be exposed to procedures that cause pain, most notably for the purposes of identification, reproduction control and prevention of disease or specific risk.

Identification usually involves attaching a tag or inserting a microchip into a young animal, causing relatively minor pain. Ear marking is painful and, although currently compulsory for sheep and cattle, it may be made optional with the National Livestock Identification System (NLIS) relying on more modern forms of identification.

Reproduction control often involves castrating young male livestock as soon as physically possible. Methods include castration by cutting to remove testicles, or cutting off their blood supply with an elastrator ring. In pastoral areas, female cattle can sometimes have their ovaries surgically removed without anaesthetic. This act of spaying these cattle allows them to put on weight and therefore be more marketable.

The range of procedures causing pain to prevent disease or injury include mulesing lambs, dehorning sheep, goats and cattle, tail docking sheep and pigs, and beak trimming chickens.

The more important ways that pain caused by these procedures can be managed include topical local anaesthetic, injectable local anaesthetic and injectable analgesics.

Topical anaesthetic has many advantages to relieve pain. Tri-solfen® is the most common product used for this purpose. It is relatively easy to apply and is effective for some time after the initial pain insult, due to a chemical that reduces blood supply to the area. One major disadvantage is that it is not effective on intact skin. This means that it can only be applied AFTER what is often the major painful insult, the cut, is carried out. It does however, numb that pain soon after the wound is inflicted, thus significantly decreasing the pain of mulesing, castration and dehorning.

Avoiding these procedures is a much more effective way to improve animal welfare. For example, by breeding sheep that don’t need mulesing and livestock that don’t have horns. Independent research by BG Economics shows producers who have switched to plain body sheep are also enjoying increased profits.

As an ideal, RSPCA WA would like to see breeding practices changed so these painful practices are no longer required. However, if these painful procedures continue to be practiced without any effective pain relief, RSPCA WA will continue to advocate strongly for their mandatory use which has already occurred in Victoria and is under parliamentary consideration in NSW.

An injectable local anaesthetic, Numnuts, has recently become available for use in castrating and tail docking lambs. Numnuts was developed in a partnership between Meat and Livestock Australia and a Scottish engineering firm. It incorporates a single action, ergonomically designed handheld device that dispenses a rubber ring and injects local anaesthetic to alleviate pain when lambs are tail-docked and castrated.

Products using meloxicam alleviate pain and inflammation and reduce fever and fluid production caused by tissue damage. These are slower-acting than local anaesthetics, can be injected or applied orally, and provide longer-lasting pain relief for over 24 hours. When it comes to lamb marking, these products can be used for mulesing, surgical castration, hot or cold knife tail docking, ring castration and ring tail docking. These help to give more effective long lasting pain relief which for maximum effect should be given a recommended time before these procedures. The combination of both Tri-Solfen® or NumOcaine® with a meloxicam product provides the most effective pain relief and gives the lamb the best chance of recovering faster, addressing both the immediate pain and distress and any pain that might occur during the healing process, as well as reducing the possibility of infection.